Little Women

Click here for photographs of this productionFresh from our sell out production of Calendar Girls, we pulled off a major coup by securing the European rights for an adaptation of one of the most popular children’s stories ever written. Based on the novel by Louisa M. Alcott, ‘Little Women’- The Musical’ is a heart warming story of four sisters growing up in America in the 1860’s. It is a trip down memory lane for anyone who read the book as a child and a delightful new discovery for those who didn’t!

The Noda Review

Content and Structure

Staging

As always with The Bradfordians, a creative set had been carefully put together for a school hall performance area. In addition to the standard stage, a high level rostrum had been added to either sides of the stage to set particular scenes, such as the town shop and library. A lower level apron rostrum was also set-up in-front of the stage and was well used. This allowed the audience to be positioned on 3 sides, to create a level of intimacy. This area was smaller on left and right of the stage on floor level, with most of the audience positioned on an extensive raked seating configuration, maximising a good view of proceedings.

The scenes inside the March family home were nicely positioned on the main stage. The set here was well decorated from the period and I particularly liked the use and effect of the fire. The distinction of the raised area at the back of the stage did look a little confused to me and wasn’t clear on its purpose until later in Act 2.

The reason for the low, raised rostrum at the front became clearer with use of the trap door during the skating scene to stage Amy’s fall through the ice. With the additional use of smoke and lighting, this effect worked very well. I also loved the setting of the Ballroom scene and its transition into the first meeting between Jo and Laurie and Meg and Mr Brooke. The use of the curtain here in particular was brilliantly choreographed.

The set was struck and rearranged effectively by Ellen Bishop and her team and whatever first night glitches were apparent were minor and effectively dealt with.

Lighting and Sound

The lighting added a great deal to the atmosphere of the production. There was a good use of colour to enhance the emotions of particular scenes. There was also an even and consistent coverage and it was well cued. The lighting was particularly memorable during the duet ‘My Prayer’ and really enhanced the mood of the song. It was also effectively used for the empty chair effect with Beth’s passing in Act 2. It was a simple trick, but so effectively executed.

Sound was ok. The Radio Microphones were either not on or not present for the opening scene, making it very difficult to hear the sister’s opening dialogue. This was a shame as this set a lot of their early characterisation and created a bit if a concern that there was no amplification being used at all. However, this was recovered by the second scene. I did feel at times that the recorded backing track did overpower the singers a little, both chorus and principals. This may be just my perception and perhaps I am showing my age in feeling that it needed to be turned down a little!

Costumes, Properties, Hair and Make-Up

Costume is not my speciality but all on display seemed good and consistent standard for all male and female cast and seemed to fit well. They all seemed to be compatible with the period of mid 19th Century rural America.

Hair and Make-up looked appropriate and natural, with suitable changes for the dance in the Ballroom scene. The burn to Jo’s dress was a suitable dramatic effect.

In general, what was used as Properties all looked appropriate and were largely in the right place at the right time. The few ‘first night’ glitches that were apparent were addressed smoothly and impressively by the whole team.

Music and Choreography

The music for the production was probably unknown to most of the audience, but was of a standard that you felt you’d witnessed a bit of an undiscovered musical gem. Many of the songs had memorable themes and tunes to them.

The space inside the performance venue and the cost of a live band means that The Bradfordians tend to use a cued and recorded backing track for their musicals. This can be a little risky, particularly if something goes wrong musically, but on the whole The Bradfordians made good use of it. Cueing was excellent. The Bradfordians are predominately a Dramatic Society (and a fine one at that) and so, by their own admittance, they tend to not have the depth of singers that a Musical Theatre or Operatic group may have in comparison. That said, the singing from all of the principals was generally of an excellent standard – but we’ll discuss that further later on.

The chorus singing did start off a little tentative and quiet in the opening number – ‘Joyous Day’ (which may also have been affected by the amplification) but this recovered with a little confidence and was good for the remainder of the show. As I have already said, the backing track did seem a little too loud at times to me for all-but the most powerful of singers.

Aunt March’s song: ‘Marry Money’ felt just too fast and did need slowing down – I have no idea how Evelyn Bates coped with it!

In terms of Choreography, there are no official credits for this in the programme, but I would imagine this was also completed by Felicity Courage (though fitting in this with Directing and Musically Directing too was a real achievement). The choreography was simple, yet effective. The Sister’s dance before the ball scene was a particular delight.

Front of House

I don’t normally put this in, but I loved the period dressing of the front of house staff to add to the show’s atmosphere. I also and enjoyed the setting up of the refreshments, as far as was reasonable to be of the period too. I’m sure the issue of having separate queues for the drinks and any food was addressed for later in the week as there was some audience disgruntlement to this during the interval.

The programme as a scroll was a nice touch and was well produced, though the price for a sheet of A4 was generating some surprise from the audience too. Personally I also do like some information on the music (songs) and the scenes, which was not included – though I appreciate the lack of space available. It wasn’t too difficult to find his via the web for later reference.

I’ve also not seen a 6pm show start time before, but in order to allow a younger audience to attend during the half-term break and without the need for a Matinee was an excellent idea. I hope it proved to be successful.

Performance

Overall

The principal and chorus performances overall were very good and from the four March sisters in particular were of a capability and maturity well beyond their years. They worked well together as a team, so well in fact that you happily maintained the belief that they were indeed sisters and their singing voices, whether alone or in harmony together were a real highlight. Their four part harmony in their quartet, towards the end of Act 2 was particularly pleasing.

The adaptation of any well-known and much-loved book to a musical does always run the risk of not matching people’s story expectations – a 2 hour musical cannot cover all that a novel is able to. The characters of both Jo and Amy are left a little incomplete as a result. There was also some playing with some of the characterisations and ages of the roles to suit the cast I believe.

Margaret “Meg” March Brooke – Rachel Butterworth.

Meg is written as the oldest sister and as a result runs the household when her mother is absent, including trying to keep her sisters from arguing. This was less evident in this production, but to me this didn’t matter. Rachel Butterworth built a character with quirkiness and fun. Clearly an accomplished actress, her performance was well-rounded and believable and also showed a very effective use of comic timing. One thing for Rachel to watch is to ensure that she always holds the accent she is using right to the end of the sentence. On occasion I noticed it dropping (mainly because it is something that I have a tendency to do myself!).

There was a good and believably chemistry between Meg and Joe Gunn’s Mr Brooke. Their duet was nicely sung. A fine performance overall.

Josephine “Jo” March – Dora Bishop

Though Jo is the second-oldest of four sisters, the book centres around her and can be seen to some extent as her story and her journey. Loving literature, she also composes plays for her sisters to perform in and writes short stories. The difficulty with this part is thus the weight of expectation. As Alcott’s main heroine, Jo in particular can be see to transcend the novel, becoming a favorite of many women of differing classes and nationalities.

Fortunately, this presented no such problem for such an accomplished actress as Dora Bishop, who revelled in Jo’s tomboy manner and feisty temperament. Dora was able to take us believably through the full range of emotions in the character – from passionate and opinionated to despairing and then joyous. The audience engaged with her from the first scene, particularly her energy, feistiness and good sense of humour which carried the show any of the technical issues in the first scene. Dora maintained the character through some quick fire dialogue – speaking quickly and clearly in some great exchanges, particularly with Laurie. In fact, some of the best scenes in the show featured the relationship between Jo and Tom Babbage’s Laurie. The emotion generated in the scene where Laurie’s proposal of marriage to Jo is rejected was both palpable and believable, as was the change of character after Beths’ death. On top of this, Dora sang well – her rendition of ‘I Will Fly’ in Act 1 was genuinely stunning and also a highlight of the show for me.

The only down-side with having such a powerful voice as Dora is that sometimes it is difficult to blend with those around you, particularly in the chorus scenes where others were much less confident. This musical does also leave the character of Jo somewhat unfinished after she rejects Laurie, though neither of these issues are really the fault of the actress. Overall, a very impressive and enjoyable performance.

Elizabeth “Beth” March – Lucy Callaghan

Beth is the second youngest sister and is described as shy, gentle and musical. She is self-sacrificing and a peace-maker, whom always sees the good in everyone. As her sisters grow up they begin to leave home, but Beth has no desire to leave her house or family. Lucy Callaghan played this part brilliantly. She showed impressive control and concentration in maintaining the character defined above and without fault or deviation – she never let up. In particular we could see and associate with the character through her facial expressions.
In addition, Lucy sang well too: her duet with Mr. Lawrence – ‘Unexpected Friends’ was particularly moving, as was her duet with Jo – ‘Enough for me’.

Unfortunately, the main tragedy during Little Women is the loss of Beth, when she develops Scarlet Fever in Act 2 after tending a sick child. Though she recovers, her health is permanently weakened. Lucy was able to communicate Beth’s realization that her time with her loved ones is coming to an end and portray that Beth’s self-sacrifice is ultimately the greatest in the story. Well done on a moving and controlled performance.

Amy March – Libby Goater

The youngest sister, aged twelve when the story begins and is thus often ‘petted’. Lucy can behave in a vain, pompous and spoiled way, throwing tantrums when she is unhappy. Libby Goater played this part and all the emotions very well indeed. She was able to produce all of the frustration and passion in being the youngest and made it believable, as well as being suitably amusing when required. She was able to act well the strain in her relationship with Jo, particularly in the ‘book burning’ and subsequent skating scene. We were also able to clearly see this change afterwards, which showed good acting ability and awareness from Lucy.

The part is a little limited as the timescale of the play means that Amy’s relationship with Aunt March cannot be developed further or her subsequent marriage to Laurie. However, Libby made the most out of what was available to her. Good work!

Additional Characters

Margaret “Marmee” March: The girls’ mother and head of household (while her husband is away in the Union Army) guides her girls’ morals to shape their characters. Kate Burton playing this part in an understated and gentle way, which I really enjoyed. Her solo of ‘Little Women’ in Act 1 was beautiful and her duet with Ian Smart as Father genuinely gave me the right kind of goose bumps.

Robert “Father” March: Though not on stage for much of the production whilst away in the Army, Ian made the most of the part. He captured the character’s compassion and strength of belief as a scholar, minister and army chaplain. He also showed that he can sing and sing well – and with no Musical Director to cue in some tricky entries. Well done!

Hannah Mullet: The March family maid and cook, their only servant. She is treated more like a member of the family than a servant. I imagined Hannah to be older, but Astrid Bishop took full advantage of the opportunity given to her and created a rounded character.

Aunt Josephine March: Aunt March is the formidable, over-bearing matron and the great-aunt of the March sisters. She is rich and cares greatly about society, but in a stiff way, loves her family. This was a lovely cameo part, played well by Evelyn Bates, be it in the humorous or dramatic parts of her scenes. Evelyn also sang well, though the song (as I have already said) seemed to be at a pace that was a little too quick to be fully appreciated and digested.

Theodore “Laurie” Laurence: The rich but orphaned young boy-next-door, who lives with his overprotective grandfather, was played wonderfully by Tom Babbage. He built what has the potential to be a one-dimensional character with confidence, warmth and detail and his relationship with Jo grew believably. The rejection of his proposal to Jo near the end of the show we have already said was handled by both Tom and Dora with suitable emotion and sensitivity. His singing voice was also excellent – his duet with Jo was well sung and well cued.

Mr. Laurence: As a wealthy neighbour to the Marches and Laurie’s grandfather, should be played as a stiff and stern but ultimately lonely elderly man, who eventually shows his softer side and finds comfort in becoming a benefactor to the Marches. Simon Green fitted the bill well for this role, though I was expecting a little more “gruffness” in the earlier scenes. That said the building of the special, tender friendship with Beth (who reminds him of his deceased daughter) was particularly well performed in both the acting and the singing.

John Brooke is Laurie’s Tutor, whom falls in love with Meg. The age of the actor, Joe Gunn made this tutoring part less suitable, but Joe gave an excellent performance in this part. He showed a good use of comic timing with Meg during the hiding scene when Aunt March visits and threatens Meg with disinheritance and as we have said already, the performance chemistry between them was excellent. A fine singing voice too! A delightful performance!

Narrator / Doc Larsen: Mark Birleson made the very best of the opportunity given, in particular his very clear Narration voice. Well done.

Others Players and Chorus

Not a huge amount for the Chorus to do in this production and once the tentative nature of the opening scene was overcome; the performances from chorus were supportive to the principals and enhanced the production.

Summary

Congratulations to everyone at The Bradfordians on another excellent and moving production, maintained their impressive pedigree and reputation. This is an emotional show (some would call it ‘a bit of a weepy’) but the right emotional response was obtained, without it ever becoming overly sentimental. This ‘coming of age’ story was effectively retold to me, capturing the essence of what Louis M Alcott was trying to achieve in the novel. Aficionados may be disappointed at what parts of the novel have not been included but most of the capacity opening night audience was left wondering why such a gem of a show had not been seen outside America before? Maybe other groups had been unable to do it justice, but under the confident guidance of Felicity Courage and with a first rate principal cast, a well-loved story was brought fittingly to life.

Finally, my apologies for coming on opening night – it was the only night I could get to the production. I did try to sit well back as to not be seen!

Matthew Heaton